This Greek Myth was included in Ovid’s moralizing fable (Metamorphoses VIII)
In the hilly countryside of Phrygia there grew two trees which were cause for much amazement to anyone who saw them. You see, one was an oak tree and the other was a linden, yet the two grew from a single trunk. How did this marvel come to be, and what can we learn from the story?
Sometimes Zeus, the King of the Olympian gods, would tire of the fun and merriment up on Mount Olympus, and he would leave his splendid palace to journey down to earth. Disguising himself as a mortal Zeus would go off seeking fun and adventure. Often on these trips he would be accompanied by his faithful associate Hermes, the clever and entertaining Messenger god.
On this occasion Zeus wanted to see how hospitable the people of Phrygia were, so he and Hermes disguised themselves as poor travelers and flew to earth, knocking on the door of any dwelling they encountered, be it rich or poor, large or small.
They were unceremoniously turned away everywhere, and nobody would deign to even speak to these dusty and famished-looking souls. “Get lost, you bums!” they were told, over and over again, as the doors were insolently slammed in the gods’ faces. The inhabitants of Phrygia evidently were not too well-mannered, and surely they had no time for filthy strangers!
Now, you must understand that Zeus was the guardian of travelers, and all those who sought shelter in a strange land were under his special protection. In his mind hospitality was paramount, and Zeus didn’t like what he saw so far in this rude land of Phrygia.
Hermes and Zeus were flippantly dismissed at hundreds of homes and they at last began to tire of the boorish behavior of the natives. The King of the Olympians grew angrier by the moment and he determined to punish these discourteous Phrygians.
Just as they decided to end their journey the gods came upon a humble little hovel, poorer than any they had seen before, with a roof made only of straw and reeds. Knocking on the door they were surprised to see it swing wide and to hear a voice cheerfully bid them enter. Stooping low to pass through the small entrance, Zeus and Hermes – still unrecognizable in their disguises – found themselves in a tiny, yet cozy and very clean, room. The owners of this poor dwelling had done the best with what little they had, this much was clear.
In the dim light they saw a kindly-faced old man and an equally-aged woman who appeared sincerely glad to see them and bustled about the room trying to make their guests more comfortable. As the old woman threw a soft cover over the bench and told them to rest their tired limbs, the old man kindled the fire, so they could warm their chilled bones.
The woman was called Baucis and her husband was Philemon, they told the gods. This humble cottage had always been their home and they had lived there happily throughout their marriage. Even though they were poor, they lacked for nothing, for their love for each other made filled them with the type of contentment that would make a King envious…
“We don’t have much to offer you, but poverty isn’t so bad when your spirit is rich and you’re filled with love!” they said with a smile, gazing fondly at each other and apologizing to their unexpected visitors because they had so little to provide them as refreshment.
Zeus and Hermes exchanged knowing glances – this was a rare pair of mortals indeed…perhaps not all Phrygians were rude hosts. Philemon raided his meager provisions and brought out some olives, eggs and radishes; while Baucis boiled a pot of water, he hurried out to their modest garden and came in with a freshly-picked cabbage. He tossed it into the kettle, along with their last piece of smoked pork hanging from the hovel beams, as Baucis set the table for the two ‘tramps’. One leg of the table was shorter than the others so Baucis had to prop it up with a piece of broken dish.
Once the ‘feast’ was ready, Philemon pulled up a couple of ancient chairs and invited the guests to fill their bellies. He had a little wine (more like vinegar, it was so sour) saved for a special occasion and promptly brought it out. Philemon watered it down so that it would last a little longer.
The old couple was thrilled to see the late night visitors enjoying the food and Philemon kept a vigil on their cups, re-filling them whenever they would empty. After a while, however, they noticed a miraculous thing occurring: no matter how many cups Philemon would pour, the wine pitcher remained filled to the top. Long after the wine should have been consumed, the pitcher still was full.
Terror-stricken, Baucis and Philemon looked at each other and bowed their heads in silent prayer to the Olympian gods high above. They suddenly suspected that these two haggard strangers were more than mere beggars. With trembling voices they again apologized for not having much to offer as hosts. Philemon then said that they had a goose (more of a pet to them, truth be told) and that they would gladly cook and serve it to their guests.
So saying, they zipped around the small room, two aging mortals in vain desperately trying to catch their goose, who wanted nothing to do with that. Around and ’round the table they chased the goose, much to the amusement and entertainment of Zeus and Hermes. The panic-stricken bird finally sought refuge on the lap of the gods, as Baucis and Philemon collapsed exhausted and panting.
The time was right; dropping their disguises Zeus and Hermes revealed their true identities to their gracious hosts and informed them that they had been kindly entertaining Olympian deities. They commended Baucis and Philemon on their splendid hospitality, and informed them that they were unlike the rest of their countrymen.
“We will severely punish this wicked land, along with the ungracious inhabitants,” they told the trembling couple. “These mortals have forgotten that the godliest act is to offer hospitality to poor strangers and they shall pay the price for their arrogance.”
Zeus assured Baucis and Philemon that his wrath would not include them, for they had proven to be kind and giving hosts. He told them to step outside their hut and to look around them. They were astounded to see only water where once there thrived fertile land and grand buildings. A huge lake had swallowed the entire countryside, people and all, and only their own humble hovel stood unscathed.
Even though their cruel neighbors had been very mean to them, still the kindly couple cried sorrowful tears on their behalf. In a short while, though, another miracle dried their tears – where once stood their lowly hut now perched majestically a stately temple, its white marble pillars supporting a roof of pure gold. Wonder of wonders!
“That’s your new home,” said Zeus. “Now name anything you want, I will be happy to grant your wish.” Baucis and Philemon whispered briefly among themselves, then bowed their heads to the King of the Olympians and in hushed voices said that their wish was to serve as his priests, living and guarding his temple until the end. The only other thing they asked of Zeus was that they should never live alone, but would even die together.
Their love was great and Zeus was pleased to grant their request. For many years the couple lived in the grand temple, faithfully serving Zeus, growing older together and cherishing each moment of their lives. One day, by now both in extreme old age, they stood outside their majestic home and began to reminisce about their younger days, when things were so hard. They knew that they were just as happy then, amid the squalor, as they were now, surrounded by opulence.
And just as much in love!
The memories flooded from them and they reveled at the fullness of their lives. Philemon suddenly saw Baucis putting forth leaves, and the same was happening to him! In no time bark was growing around them and they only had time for one last kiss and a joyous cry of “Farewell dear companion!” before they became trees.
But still they were together, forever. You see, the linden and the oak grew from the same trunk. Zeus had granted their wish and people came from afar to marvel at this wonderful tree and to hang wreaths of flowers on its branches.